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The FBI wants data on police use of force. Police departments aren't cooperating

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The United States has never published national statistics on police use of force, but the FBI is trying to change that. It hopes to start releasing those numbers if it can convince enough police departments to cooperate. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: August 2014, Ferguson, Mo. - in the movement for police accountability, it was a watershed moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Hands up, don't shoot.

KASTE: And in that moment, one of the things that Americans realized was that we didn't have national statistics on the use of force. How are people supposed to fix something that hadn't been properly counted? The director of the FBI, James Comey, acknowledged as much in this 2016 speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMEY: We simply don't know. As a country, we have not bothered to collect the data, to collect the information. And in the absence of information, we have anecdotes. We have videos.

KASTE: And so the Fed started collecting the data, not just for shootings but for injuries, time of day, race, sex and a list of other details. The effort has its own website. You'll find it if you search for National Use-of-Force Data Collection, hosted by the FBI. But there's a problem - there isn't much there to see.

PHIL STINSON: It's, frankly, what I expected.

KASTE: Phil Stinson is a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, an expert in police use of force and someone who was looking forward to some national statistics. But then he heard that this effort would be voluntary, that police departments could choose whether to send in the data.

STINSON: It's very difficult to get, you know, the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies across the country to voluntarily participate and send in information.

KASTE: Also this whole project has a threshold. The FBI won't publish use-of-force figures unless it gets at least 60% participation. In 2019, it got 44%. In 2020, it was a little better, 55%. But it's still not enough for them to post national use of force numbers, and time is running out. If they don't hit the 60% mark by the end of the year, that could end the project. Why is this happening? Stinson suspects that some of this might just be bureaucratic inertia.

STINSON: It's frankly a little bit of a burden on the agencies. They have to devote staff to this effort, but it's a reasonable request. They should be able to provide the data.

KASTE: And one might also suspect that police departments are reluctant to report information that makes them look bad. But in fact, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has eagerly backed this effort. Former IACP president Steve Casstevens runs a department in Illinois. He thinks national numbers would be good for the reputation of policing. He says he's had frustrating conversations with some of his fellow chiefs.

STEVE CASSTEVENS: A lot of police departments are not reporting because they do not have any use of force incidents that meet the criteria. And a lot of police chiefs said, oh, well, I didn't know I was supposed to report the zeros. And I said, well, that's the whole point (laughter).

KASTE: But civil rights groups think the numbers will shed more light on police abuses, where they're happening and to whom. Sakira Cook is with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

SAKIRA COOK: We've always been concerned about voluntary participation, right? Because police departments on their own are not putting out this data at the state and local level as they should, so let alone will they participate voluntarily with the federal government.

KASTE: The Leadership Conference worries that the partial numbers that have been collected might never be published, so it tried to get them through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI refused, saying the request was too cumbersome. But the FBI also says in a recent email to NPR that it is, quote, "confident" that it will meet the 60% threshold this year. That remains to be seen. For now, the most interesting information on the FBI's National Use-Of-Force Data Collection website are the state-by-state spreadsheets. There, you can see the lists of the local police departments that are participating and which ones are conspicuous by their absence. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.